Crimso Geiger’s Infinite Space

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Mysterion Mothership Interior

Crimso Geiger has been making space creations since 2006. Renowned for his seemingly endless stream of innovative and unusual creations in the Classic Space style, as well as being the founder of Febrovery – the month long space rover building event – there was no one better for me to discuss the art of science fiction LEGO building with.

David Alexander Smith You’ve been making amazing space models for several years now, but what initially inspired you to return to building as an adult?

Crimso Geiger Actually I’ve never ceased building since my childhood. In fact I don’t think I’ve really had what you might term a ‘Dark Age’. However what really got me back into more ‘serious building’ was my (late) discovery of the web, around 2003-2004. At first it was mainly a nostalgia trip on Lugnet, researching all the LEGO sets that had inspired my dreams as a child. Then around 2006 I discovered MOCpages, the LEGO fan-sharing site, and got a sense of what the community was making. At the time my true artistic hobby was abstract drawing, but very soon I felt the need to go back to LEGO building, and focus my creative energy there.

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Base Interior (7) – The creation that got Crimso noticed by the community.

DAS Your work is synonymous with the LEGO Group’s space themes from the late 70s to the late 90s.  What makes the design of these sets so special to you, rather than say the Star Wars range, which seems to have drawn so many fans back into the hobby?

CG For me the true spirit of LEGO building can be traced back to the designers of the Classic Space era: it shines through in their models. They built some truly unique spaceships, bases, etc, that didn’t come from a movie; and in design terms were really inspiring. As a child I felt that even the coolest science fiction movies had their flaws, whereas the unique appeal of the LEGO space ranges, and the aspect I loved, was the way you could tell your own stories through the sets.

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Classic Space Cargo

I have a very complicated love/hate relationship to the Star Wars franchise’s association with the LEGO fan community. In my opinion there are far too many fan creations focused on this universe. Science fiction is too cool and too wide to be reduced to a single universe, especially one that has become entrenched in the financial needs of marketing a brand. For me, a set like the Alien Moon Walker (6940) will always be more charming in its design than say an AT-AT Walker.

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Alien Moon Walker

Compared to today’s sets, classic space sets achieve efficient design with only a few bricks, for example in the mythical Moon Buggy (886) or the Mobile Lab (6901). Actually I think that my style of building is far removed from the Classic Space style in most cases, even if it remains as a guide for a certain design ‘authenticity’: my creations are Classic Space in spirit rather than Classic Space to the letter. I also love the modularity of the bigger sets and the simple yet efficient colour schemes they used.

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Silver Machine (4)

DAS What do you think makes a great science fiction model?

CG This is such a wide question! The first thing that comes to my mind would be personality. I want to see the individuality of the creator’s ideas in the model. Influences are fine, but it needs to be enlightened by something that only belongs to them. That’s why I don’t really care about replicas of existing science fiction themes from movies, although these often demonstrate awesome technical skills.

If we are talking about LEGO science fiction builds, then I admit I prefer studless models, although creations with loads of studs work in some contexts. I similarly love builders who are not afraid of bright colors. Also, I love strange shaping, like many innovative space builders do, but overall I’m more sensitive to nice texturing in a work. I’m more about patterns and part repetitions, and not necessarily ‘traditional’ greebles that are sometimes indistinguishable and even indigestible.

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Mazone Refuelling Vehicle (4)

DAS Obviously you see a strong design process at work in space building, but can science fiction LEGO be art and if it can what makes it distinct from other genres.

CG I don’t feel my LEGO work is in anyway different to my other artistic output: I draw and make electronic music. It’s a way for me to express who I am. More seriously, have you got twenty pages to give me, as that is what I need to formulate a serious answer. To be brief, I just see my work as a three dimensional version of the work of Chris Foss and other science fiction painters, and to the best of my knowledge they are considered as artists.

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Ghost Tiger (Crimso Remix)

DAS Your builds are full of imagination; you seem to be able to endlessly come up with new themes that the LEGO group might have devised back in the 80s and 90s – Biotron being my personal favorite.  How do you come up with these alternative ranges, and do you have any that are special to you?

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Biotron THC-500 Ambassador (4)

CG Each of those personal themes has its own particular story. I think they express various aspect of my personality, and all of them in this respect, are close to my heart. More generally I love the idea of themes for my builds, as it gives me guidelines for each creation. But it is also interesting for me to not be too precise in observing those guidelines, to remain free.

Most of my themes don’t have an official back story, rather they evolve in my mind every so often. For example, my Zorg Empire creations began as a standard evil force, but over the years I added more contrasted shades to this theme. On the other hand, Biotron are probably the most obvious ‘good guys’ in my universe, but they also have a more ambiguous ‘hidden message’, which might not necessarily be perceived by the viewer. It is important to me that these messages remain ambiguous and unexplained.

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Bronto-Zorg

DAS The other trend your work demonstrates is an ability to build multiple creations from a constrained theme; for instance seven or eight Space Police models in a row.  What is the reasoning behind this and how useful a creative strategy is it?

CG It’s probably linked to my childhood. I have a precise memory of discovering the whole Futuron range in the 1987 LEGO catalogue. I was ten at the time, and I spent the whole day looking at this fascinating new range. Now as an adult I get great pleasure in going back to my childhood and creating a whole range that emulates the childhood wonderment I felt back then.

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In Flight

On a more prosaic note, it’s simpler to keep available the parts in the same colors for a precise theme, rather than to switch between all the various colours.  It certainly makes sorting easier! That said, I don’t necessarily feel the need to make series of creations: on the contrary, I’m interested in a wide and various range of interpretations on an original theme.

DAS Febrovery (the month long space Rover event) was your brainchild.  How did it come about, what was the reasoning behind it, and why do you think it continues to be so popular?

CG To be perfectly honest, the whole thing happened as a kind of accident. I’d uploaded some classic space style rovers on Flickr, saying humorously in the description, “I could build these all day long”. People seemed amused by the idea and someone proposed it could be a theme for a month long challenge, another that a cool name for it would be FebRovery… So from that simple beginning it became a collective effort [lol].

That said, I think I’ve provided the true impulse for the process, through the numerous creations I’ve made for that event over the years. I also put the emphasis on fun, where other month long building challenges choose a more serious tone. The main point was not to create a contest; more a kind of party, with a theme that didn’t require too much time or parts to produce cool creations. I also avoided too precise guidelines, in order to give builders more freedom.

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CSR Set 607  – A reaction against the “serious spirit”in a part of the LEGO community

I really hope that this month long challenge will remain popular in years to come! It’s probably this month that gives me the most fun and pleasure; sharing my models with such a creative and friendly community.

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Snail Rover – final build Febrovery 2015

DAS Febrovery is indeed a fan favorite in the LEGO building community, which draws people together in a collective project.  How important is community building to the LEGO building experience for you?

CG I’ve always felt very isolated in my other hobbies (drawing, electronic music, etc.) so these collective projects in the Lego community have been a kind of revelation for me. I would define myself as a rather independent person, especially when it comes to art, but I’ve learned how pleasant it is to work in a collective challenge, thanks to the awesomely nice Lego community. I’m a big fan of NoVVember (the Vic Viper spaceship event) in particular. With some French spacer friends, I’ve done the RMX challenge this year and that was amazing. RMX is a version of the star fighter telephone game, one builder uploads a star fighter, and the participants have to build a similar star fighters, respecting the shape and colour scheme, but in their own individual style.

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RMX Starfighter Challenge

In general, I really love this kind of challenge, if – and only if – it’s not a real contest. I really don’t like the ego wars contests can create. That said, some true contest can be very cool, especially the ones on MOCpages, where, for some reason the proceedings rarely turn into a dogfight.

DAS I’ve noticed that you tend to shy away from large builds in favour of many smaller pieces.  What makes you want to work in this way?  Arguably the fans that commit hours to monumental works gain far more attention in the LEGO media.

CG The most important thing for me when building, is to have fun. Big projects often need you to work seriously on structural issues, and are sometime very hard to take good photos of. So it’s not really fun, at least for me.

I’ve got lots of ideas, and not that much patience, so small or average-sized creations suit my personality better than long-term behemoth projects. Also, I’m sure that true men of taste can appreciate smaller builds! Kaarf Oohlu is to my eyes, (and to the eyes of a very large portion of the community) a fantastic builder, very prolific and creative; and even his biggest creations are fairly small. But I don’t want to put limitations to my work, and I might build bigger creations in the future.

DAS Where do you see your building going next?  Are there any projects or plans you are keen to tackle in the future?

CG I would love to make more dioramas for my own themes, or for my beloved old classic space themes. However, it would not be a big departure from my usual style. I’m thinking about a more radical break in my style: I would love to create completely abstract creations, but I really need to think about it… nothing is  written at this point. I feel that abstraction is too uncommon in current LEGO building. My sci-fi style sometimes borders on a certain degree of abstraction, and as an ex-abstract painter and drawer, I feel that I may have a suitable pedigree to go into these little unexplored territories. I’ve got a strong will to go that way. Only time will tell!

You can find more of Crimso Geiger’s amazing creations on his Flickr page.

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Monochrome Interior #1

 

Is there something funny about these bricks?: Lego and Humour

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Lego Batman gives a knowing wink in Lego the Movie

“I only work in black….And sometimes very, very dark gray.” says Batman in The Lego Movie[i], and a ripple of laughter spreads across the movie theatre. All at once the audience realises that Lego Batman is funnier and probably cooler than Christian Bale, Adam West, Michael Keaton and even George Clooney’s Batman. But why is this?

The Lego Movie has a sparking screenplay written by the talented team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, and whilst I wouldn’t want to take anything away from their work (if only the Oscar selection committee felt differently), I feel this is only one part of the answer. Lego’s growth not just as a toy, but also as a cultural form, has been tied to its ability to carry a joke. Yet, this often-symbiotic relationship between Lego and humour has gone without serious discussion. So, what is it about the reflection of our culture in bricks that we find so funny?

One of the critiques against Lego’s recent developments has been its rush to embrace mainstream franchises, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Simpsons and later this year Scooby Doo. The critics note the crass consumer drives of this process, and the loss of a more innocent Lego era, with its smiling mini-figure faces, and imaginative building at its core. The more realistic take, is that Lego needed to make this leap, and develop a cross media approach or face the collapse of the company. It could be argued that the use of humour in the Lego branding process is one way in which the company sought to retain its identity amongst the overwhelming range of intellectual property it now represents.

Fiona Wright, Vice President and General Manager Lego UK, speaking at the AFOLCON in London last November[ii], made the link between the company’s franchise development strategy and humour: young boys, Lego’s core target market in the early 2000s, responded to humour in market research. The result was a light comedic take, as shown at the conference through a series of cinema adverts for Lego Star Wars. By adding knowing irreverence to its subject matter, whilst retaining warmth, Lego effectively found a new way to sell other properties under its own banner, and remain true to both.

This marketing approach soon became a standard for Lego. Sticking with Star Wars, the Lego Star Wars games excelled in finding this balance between source material and parody. Take the reworking of one of the saga’s most serious moments, Darth Vader’s paternal announcement, “I am your father”. In the Lego video game[iii], the mimed version of the necessarily vocal proclamation literally makes a charade of the scene. And we laugh.

The Lego video games made an unexpected decision when they put the process of building, which arguably is at the heart of the Lego experience, second to narrative and humour. At one level this seems obvious, the conventions of video games, or at least mainstream successful games, relies on the player taking on an intentional role. As such Lego video games start from the premise that they begin at the point when the Lego model has been made and play begins. What Lego got right was how this play should be guided, with irreverence, and a willingness to poke fun at the untouchable master narratives of these mega-properties they now represented.

So whilst the critics of Lego’s franchise model relegate humour in these ranges to a brute marketing strategy, deployed at the cost of the building experience, there is something more at stake. Something about how as consumers, we consume.  Not in the blind sedated way a critic might simplistically suggest, but in a knowing and often self-critical way. Put another way, being complicit with the seduction, allows one to laugh at the seducer, whilst still being seduced. From personal experience, the way Lego has handled its relationship with Star Wars, compliments my own life-long relationship to the saga. One that I often jokingly describe by saying: “you can only truly be a life-long fan of Star Wars, if you are a life-long critic of Star Wars.”

The re-presentation of the Star Wars universes, as a subtle self-parody, in Simon Critchley’s phrasing allows us to laugh at ourselves rather than laugh at others[iv]. It would be incredibly easy to write a biting analysis of the Star Wars machine, a loose flabby inconsistent narrative, driven through with poor and often annoying characters, all joined together with a mighty capitalist marketing machine. But Lego Star Wars is not satire, a call to us to name Star Wars an artistic failure, to sneer and chastise through nasty laughter. We embrace Lego Star Wars because we love Star Wars. We consume the products of the franchise and know we are being drip-fed a narcotic, part nostalgia part promise. And we do all this willingly. The humour in Lego allows us to laugh at ourselves, and our love of that which is patently ridiculous, but importantly be able to do this and retain love for the original.

Still, this doesn’t quite answer the question as to what uniquely about Lego helps it operate as a medium for humor. The heartfelt caricature is not unique to Lego. Perhaps Mel Brook’s magnificent send-up SpaceBalls[v] stands as the perfect parody of Star Wars. When we have Dark Helmet, why settle for Lego Vader?

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Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet in SpaceBalls

If we go back to the original quote from Lego Batman, there is conceivably an answer to this question. The clue is that we understand and find Batman funny when he discloses his building style. That Batman’s imagination is limited by a colour scheme. In the Lego world everything can be reduced to an aesthetic. By clicking bricks together Lego renders even complex themes simple and malleable. We laugh at Lego Batman, because we understand him according to ridiculously reduced criteria, and feel the gulf between this and the deep and moody character of the comics and films. This is funny because it knowingly flaunts this reduction, and ironically leaves us with a character more essentially Batman than Batman.

This type of humour, where anything can be reduced to a style, and where styles can be exchanged like so many hats, is deeply embedded in the Lego building community. As builders we find Batman funny when he declares his adherence to the black and gray theme, because we know at once we can all build like Batman; every builder with black bricks in his or her box of pieces is Batman. Take for instance Kevin Ryhal’s stunning Batspeeder [vi]. Here, with the slightest whimsy we see just how easily Batman can fit into the Star Wars universe; with both the Star Wars aesthetic and Batman’s jet-black criteria being met.

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Kevin Ryhal’s Batspeeder

This type of irreverence, displayed through design and aesthetic expression, whilst not unique to Lego, certainly finds a medium perfectly suited to this expression. This isn’t just parody, but parody through an imaginative understanding of design. And in the building community, this flexibility and ease of reverential irreverence, that strange balance between laughter and love, is so commonplace we often miss its unique quality. This isn’t the bold marketing driven humour of Lego’s franchise campaigns, this is the knowing nods of thousands of fan builders, venerating their subject matter, because they know how to build what they love, without feeling any compulsion to treat it with unjustified reverence. In fact because they know it intimately enough to build it, allows them to lovingly laugh at it. This is the same intimacy expressed when we find ourselves able to laugh at our own foibles, because we know them better than anyone else.

There is no better case for this type of humorous building than Louis K’s All Terrain-Ice Cream Transporter [vii]. Vader, make mine a 99!

Louis K's  All Terrain-Ice Cream Transport

Louis K’s
All Terrain-Ice Cream Transport

Yet this is just one genre of humour, and not the whole story as to why Lego works so well when it makes us laugh. The consistent way humour has been deployed by the company in recent years across its product ranges should not be confused with the full range of humour it can carry.

I still remember this 1980s advert from Lego, replete with voice over from the irrepressible Tommy Cooper, that markets Lego with a very different brand of humour. Here Lego keeps up with the flow of humorous associations, and the ludicrousness that such a train of thought can take us on. The mouse that calls forth the cat, that calls forth the dog, that calls forth the dragon, that calls forth the fire engine, and so on.

This charming advert tells us a great deal about the versatility of Lego. It is funny, not because it references another art form, a franchise or model to parody, it is funny because it illustrates thought. The slapstick repartee of Cooper’s back and forth dialectic, where his monologue continuously outwits itself (apart from when it unintentionally undoes itself by mistaking a slipper for kipper), is matched step by step, with Lego brick creations. The humour arises from us finding in the inanimate aggregate of bricks the wit and speed of Cooper’s comic mind.

Turning once more to Simon Critchley, and his short but wonderful study On Humour[viii], he notes Wyndham Lewis’ memorable quote:

‘To bring vividly to our mind what we mean by ‘absurd,’ let us turn to the plant, and enquire how the plant could be absurd. Suppose you came upon an orchid or a cabbage reading Flaubert’s Salammbô, or Plutarch’s Moralia, you would be very much surprised. But if you found a man or a woman reading it, you would not be surprised.

Now in one sense you ought to be just as much surprised at finding a man occupied in this way as if you had found an orchid or a cabbage, or a tomcat, to include the animal world. There is the same physical anomaly. It is just as absurd externally, that is what I mean.—The deepest root of the Comic is to be sought in this anomaly.’[ix]

What can be divulged from this analysis is that there is an anomaly experienced every time we encounter a pile of bricks and find through the power of our imagination, that this stack of plastic appears alive, even human.  The juxtaposition between the inanimate brick and Cooper’s thought process makes us laugh.  There is something essentially funny when a group of recta-linear bricks act like a cat, and even funnier to see them present a stream of consciousness.

From this observation, we may have stumbled across another key as to what makes Lego funny.  Mini-figures for example have an innate potential for humour because they present the inanimate brick as simultaneously invested with human characteristics, able to drive cars, sell ice cream, dance, cry and love, and still remain a collection of plastic parts.  The Lego movie gains its amusing core from this simple but universal comic root – to be human and free, and not, at the same time.

In the building community, this type of humour is most readily seen in what are commonly called brick built figures.  These comic creations imbue life into bricks in a way that not only surprises us, but also on occasion makes us laugh.  One builder whose work often exemplifies this theme is Riccardo Zangelmi.   He takes not only the inanimate brick, but creates inanimate objects, or animal life, that exude human vitality and character.  Although we see the simple bricks and pure building skill in his work, it is the fact that it always comes as a surprise to find these constructs inherently alive and in action that makes them special.  Like the cabbage reading Flaubert, the struggle of life and death or should that be between life and bread, between toaster and sandwich is fundamentally absurd[x].

Riccardo Zangelmi's  Mr. Sandwich and Angry Toaster

Riccardo Zangelmi’s Mr. Sandwich and Terrible Toaster

As before with the case of Star Wars, although it is possible to find a comic operation in certain building techniques, are these unique to Lego?  Surely when we see a face formed by a house’s door and windows, or laugh at a cat on YouTube dancing in a tutu, we experience the same operation of the imagination?

Returning to my proposition on Lego art[xi], what helps us understand the unique nature of humour’s operation in Lego is the fact that Lego is always simultaneously understood as being in two states.  Our imagination sees both the formed thing, and the unformed aggregate of bricks that make it.  Viewing Lego enacts a state of paradox, a permanent visual pun.

So, when we find a Lego creation funny, either because in the case of Lego Batman we find the complex image of Batman simultaneously representable by simple basic aesthetic conditions, or where we find life and character in a collection of inanimate bricks, in both cases we are sustaining a paradox.  Humour that operates on the principle of seeing one thing whilst also understanding another is aided by the aesthetic form of Lego.

In answer to the question what makes Lego funny the following case could be presented.  Lego is not innately funny, but its aesthetic conditions, boost, support or act as a catalyst for humour, by putting our minds in a state capable of holding opposite or contradictory conditions together.  And when we find these associations funny, Lego only helps enliven the thought processes that achieve this.

I’d like to close this brief encounter with Lego humour by returning to the earlier Wyndham Lewis quote.  The first condition of his anomaly being that we find the inanimate acting as a human funny, the second that we should equally on these grounds take the human acting as a human funny.  When we laugh at what Lego makes us think, by holding contradictory conditions together, we actually get a chance to find our own human imaginative capacity ridiculous.  As humans we create contradictory worlds, conceptions of others, and ourselves; and we normally treat these inventions as stable and true.  When they are rendered in Lego they reveal their contradictions, the artificiality of their being made.  Lego allows us to laugh at our world and ourselves, because we understand that it and the Lego creation are both made and understood from the position of our own contradictory inventiveness.

Endnotes

[i] The LEGO Movie, dir Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, (Fox Studios 2014).

[ii] See the AFOLCON website http://www.afolcon.com/news/.

[iii] Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy, Travellers Tales (2006)

[iv] Simon Critchley, On Humour, Routledge, London (2002)

[v] SpaceBalls, dir Mel Brooks, (MGM 1987)

[vi] Kevin Ryhal, Batspeeder (2013), https://www.flickr.com/photos/57996423@N06/9315005865/in/photostream/ (website accessed 25 January 2015)

[vii] Louis K, All Terrain-Ice Cream Transporter (2011) http://www.mocpages.com/moc.php/247503 website accessed 25 January 2015)

[viii] Ibid 2002.

[ix] Wyndham Lewis, The Meaning of the Wild Body, Harcourt Brace, New York (1928). P.248.

[x] Ricardo Zangelmi, Mr.Sandwich and Terrible Toaster (2013) https://www.flickr.com/photos/rickbrick/9422228965/ (website accessed 25 January 2015)

[xi] David Alexander Smith, ‘Building a case for Lego art’, Building Debates (3 January 2015) https://buildingdebates.wordpress.com/20150103building-a-case-for-lego-art/ (accessed 25 January 2015).